“This land, shadowed by blood,
under the wheels of wagons,
singing the songs of the years past.”
Burak Cem Arliel’s harrowing war film, Kirimli (Crimean), inspired by Crimean Tartar author Cengiz Dağci’s 1958 novel, “Korkunç Yıllar (Terrible Years)”, unapologetically reframes World War II through the eyes of the Crimean Tartars. Providing a much overlooked alternative to the more common Western European perspectives on Nazi regime, the opening scene of Arliel’s high-budget film incites one single question: Why wasn’t this done earlier?
The narrative maps the plight of real-life Sadik Turan (Murat Yildirim), a brave and unswervingly loyal Tartar prisoner of war in a Nazi concentration camp. War brutally interrupts Sadik’s life from the very first scene –the first incident in a bleak pattern to be perpetuated throughout the rest of film – when a pleasant morning at school is overturned by brusque Russian soldiers who force the implementation of Cyrillic language into the educational system.
The power play in the little classroom functions as a microcosmic indicator of the hostile Soviet takeover of the whole country. Young Sadik, already fiercely patriotic and fearlessly outspoken, defies the Soviet orders: “Why should I speak Russian?” he demands to the soldiers. “I am not a Russian. I am a Crimean. I’m not afraid of you.” Curiously, Sadik escapes the soldiers unscathed –a motif of fortunate survival which recurs throughout the film.
A grim series of events lead Sadik to be locked up at a Nazi prison camp appropriately named ‘Hell’s Door’, in which life mingles inextricably with death. Surviving skeletons of human beings scrabble desperately in the dirt for scraps of stale bread beside the dead corpses of their once-breathing brothers, slumped degradingly on top of one another.
At ‘Hell’s Door’, the Captain’s tastefully decorated brick-and-glass European house looks absurdly incongruous, like a camel in an igloo, amidst the mud, the violence, and the death. The captain’s red-headed, buxom wife Annette, with her white lace gloves, flower-adorned terrace, and tray full of cookies wouldn’t look out of place on a postcard for any rural Western country.
Annette’s seemingly unperturbed continuance of everyday existence at the grueling Nazi camp forces us to acknowledge the bitter duality in the German treatment of the Crimeans; as Annette prepares a dinner for her Captain husband complete with not one apple, but two, swarms of Crimean men perish from starvation in the death camp right next door. Back at his bunk, Sadik gives Annette’s cookie to Halil, who moans at its taste in foreboding ecstatic bliss: “I’m eating a cookie, man. I must have died and gone to heaven.”
Sadik, as the only German-speaking Crimean, becomes the port of call for relaying Nazi orders to the Crimeans. In a flashback we learn that Sadik’s father shared with him the truth about enemies: “They are the ones who fear you”. Sadik’s knowledge of this truth is what sets him apart. Almost instantly, his fellow hostages at the death camp recognize Sadik as their leader, drawn to his unwavering bravery, resilience, and patriotism.
Sadik is driven purely by the instinct to save his fellow Crimeans, shielding them from terrible truths whenever possible. One day, the formidable Nazi commander, Bauer (Baki Davrak) tells Sadik in German to dig a pit that is big enough to fit the corpses of the Crimean prisoners. When his Crimean digging companion, Mustafa (actor name) asks why the Nazis require such a deep cavern to be dug, Sadik does not meet his eyes: “I don’t know. They didn’t say.”
Ethical questions arise from Sadik’s decision to cohort with the Nazis on the grounds that they will free Crimea from the Soviets. For Sadik, it boils down to freeing Crimea, whichever way he can – but this decision is questioned throughout the film, most obviously by Maria Kosecki (Selma Ergeç), whose concerned words Sadik eventually begins to acknowledge. Just before he plunges a knife into the enemy, Sadik stares into his eyes and cries out, “Our homeland is in us.”
Weaved throughout the narrative are curious parallels and open loops that return to their beginnings. These unlikely but not impossible coincidences fall just short of being contrived, as Arliel explains: “The coincidences are turned into options and options are turned into opportunities during a hazardous journey of a man standing on his feet without hesitance and losing hope.”
Producer Ayfer Özgürel said that “Crimean” was made under very difficult circumstances – and it shows. Throughout the film, intimate human scenes revealing the Crimean plight are peppered with literal and figurative bullet holes. Between sprays of gunfire, the raw light of human resilience shines through the cracks that warfare leaves in its wake.